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UMaine Researcher Using $615,155 Grant to Fight Flu Virus

Contact: Sam Hess, 581-1036; George Manlove, 581-3756

View a UMaine Feature of the story here.

ORONO — A University of Maine researcher recently has been approved for a five-year $615,155 grant from the National Institutes of Health to try to find a way human cells might reject invasions by influenza, HIV and Ebola, among other viruses.

Assistant professor of physics and astronomy Sam Hess, whose work prior to joining the faculty at UMaine included biomedical research at the NIH, has received a “career award” to study how viruses penetrate cellular membranes and what might be done to block infection.

Hess is doing the research under the guidance of UMaine physics professor R. Dean Astumian and former colleague Joshua Zimmerberg at the NIH. Using laser-scanning fluorescence microscopes in Bennett Hall, Hess is studying how cholesterol and lipids play a role in assisting viral proteins to bond to the surface of cells, penetrate and infect them.

He specifically is looking at hemagglutinin, the protein from influenza virus that opens a hole, or fusion pore, in the membranes of host cells and allows the virus to enter and infect the cell. If he can determine, by watching protein grouping patterns under a microscope, how that happens, Hess believes he or other scientists will be able to figure out how to interrupt the process.

The title of an article Hess co-authored and which is the basis for the research is “Quantitative Electron Microscopy and Fluorescence Spectroscopy of the Membrane Distribution of Influenza Hemagglutinin,” which appeared in the June issue of The Journal of Cell Biology.

Rafts are controversial protein and lipid clusters that are thought to be used by cells for many biological functions. Rafts also contain high concentrations of cholesterol and saturated lipids. Removal of cholesterol from membranes appears to have inhibitory effects on hemagglutinin.

Many researchers currently are studying viruses, particularly in view of new mutant forms of common viruses, like influenza, and less common but potentially catastrophic viruses like Asian bird flu, Ebola, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), Hess says. “But we’re doing something that hasn’t been done, I think, which is using these lasers and spectroscopy to see what’s going on in a virus,” he says. “If we can find out why influenza needs cholesterol, it may be the same reason HIV needs cholesterol, or some other virus.”

An Orono resident originally from Stillwater, Hess has taught physics and conducted biomedical research at UMaine for about a year and a half. The grant will be used to upgrade research equipment at UMaine and provide staffing necessary for Hess to continue his cell membrane and virus research.

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